Virtual Tourism: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

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The Theatre of Cyrene (that’s me to the right of the red pillow)

[NOTE: all images in this article are taken from the Assassin’s Creed: Origins Discovery Tour, and hence are presumably copyright by Ubisoft. Since I am writing a very positive review of their title, I hope they don’t mind my publishing them.]

You can’t miss the headlines. Or the Instagrams. Hordes and hordes of travellers overrunning every scenic spot on the planet. European cities unable to cope with the sheer numbers of visitors. Outraged locals quoted: our hometowns have been invaded and taken over! Once-remote Iceland, now alarmed by the “Disneyfication” of its tourist destinations. Queues forming to take iconic images in iconic places: now it’s your turn to take the (completely misleading) image of yourself “all alone” looking down on Machu Picchu, or up at the Taj… but don’t take more than a few seconds to enjoy your “moment”, because there are a lot of people impatiently waiting.

You want to climb Everest? Take a number. In 2018, 800 people made the climb, almost all with Everest-climbing tour companies. The trail up Mount Fuji is littered with trash from over 300,000 people climbing it annually, to the distress of the Japanese government. In the Arctic and Antarctic the cruise ships dodge each other, carefully scheduling their arrivals in “distant, lonely” bays so that the punters won’t realise how many ships are constantly passing through.

Sailing to the South Pacific in your own boat used to be a grand and rare adventure; by 2015, almost 400 private cruising yachts visited the Marquesas (to pick just one popular destination). Island nations have responded by intensifying visa restrictions and customs regulations: the paperwork is daunting nowadays. Go to Bali at the wrong time, and you’ll find yourself surrounded not by foreign faces and voices, but by a mob of American college students on spring break. (Over five million tourists visit Bali every year.) In the Med, the giant cruise ships park like buses at a depot, dominating the once-scenic waterfront, dwarfing the architecture. (Over 30 cruise lines operate in the region.)

Travel just ain’t what it used to be.

The chances of meeting “authentic” local people and having a friendly, not-too-commercial multicultural encounter have declined steadily, along with unlittered scenery and undeveloped coastlines. I live in a tourist destination myself. My small island is overrun every summer: the tourists outnumber us two to one during the season. We are grateful for the income, yes, but we don’t really like it much. It’s like having twice the number of expected guests show up for a house party. So I understand why locals in other over-visited places would feel exactly the same way about Moi, fresh off the plane or bus and waving my camera. A handful of tourists a year are rare and welcome visitors from the outside world, emissaries from Foreign Parts. Thousands of tourists every year are a plague.

I used to dream of travel, but nowadays… it seems hardly worth it. Everywhere I might want to go is already overrun, commodified, monetised; and the people there probably wish I’d stay home. What I really want, if the truth be told, is time travel. I want to go back to a less crowded world, when fewer people were crazy enough, hardy enough, or wealthy enough to “go foreign,” when a tourist was a nine-days’ wonder in most of the known world. Travel was more dangerous then, but it was also more wondrous. There was no McDonald’s in Beijing.

Sure, I’d love to roam Venice, or saunter through the Louvre. I’d like to see Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal, Chartres, the Pyramids, the Acropolis, the Tower of London. But not under today’s conditions! And there’s another consideration, not a small one for me: I can’t cope with the air-travel guilt. We can make all the excuses we want, but the fact remains that air travel is a huge contributor to carbon emissions — and I just don’t feel I can be a part of that. Not any more, not just for fun, not just for idle entertainment. So… I sit home, sort of envying (but not quite) all those Instagramming turistas… and I dream of what travel was (or at least how it was written up by travellers) in late C19 and early C20.

This January I had an interesting experience that set me wondering about less destructive ways of feeding that universal human hunger for exploring and sight-seeing. I acquired and tried out a “tourism version” of the Origins release of a hugely successful open-world game franchise, Assassin’s Creed.

I’ll spare you the details of the AC franchise — suffice it to say, it is pretty much the industry standard: a fantasy/historical combat/quest/campaign open-world single-player RPG (that’s Role Playing Game, not Rocket Propelled Grenade). Accompanied by a follow-cam (3rd person view), your avatar runs around collecting things, building up skills, killing people, having cryptic conversations, gathering clues, avenging wrongs, saving the world, solving riddles, following a tangled and contrived story line full of weaponry and combat… until you finally “win.” Frankly, I couldn’t be less interested in all that. I don’t own any games of this kind.

BUT…

As you might say, the game just changed. The publisher, Ubisoft, had the brilliant idea of releasing a non-quest, non-violent version of the game as an education and tourism experience. Called “Discovery Tour,” it was offered gratis to existing game owners, but could also be purchased as a standalone title by newcomers. Assassin’s Creed Origins Discovery Tour is a whole different experience, and it blew me away. [Disclaimer: the rest of this review, I confess, is a wide-eyed rave. You might get the impression that I work for Ubisoft, or own stock, or some such connection. I really don’t. They didn’t even give me a free copy; I paid for it. I am just a non-RPG gamer who had an epiphany while playing a “non-combat version” of a popular RPG.]

Ubisoft is not a small outfit, and they have done very well with the AC franchise. With 16,000 employees at studios around the world (not to mention lots of cash in the bank) they can afford to roll out meticulously crafted 3D open-world simulations. The production process for these games is comparable to making a blockbuster movie: budgets over $100M US are normal, and can be double that figure for a blockbuster game. For Origins — which is set in Egypt at approximately the time of Octavian, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra — they pulled out all the stops. They hired archaeologists and Egyptologists, museum curators, artists, historians, actors. They added seventy-five informative “guided tours” which you can follow to learn something of Egyptian, Roman, and Greek history in the region. And in the process they created something remarkable, something which I’m now convinced has significance far beyond expanding the market for their franchise.

So what’s special about it?

ACO-DT drops you (in the form of an avatar of your choice: male or female, child or adult, Greek or Roman or Egyptian) into the world of ancient Egypt.

It’s not a small world. The map covers about 120 square kilometres (over 40 square miles, for non-metric readers). Several major cities are modeled (Alexandria, Cyrene, and Memphis for a start), and though these are scale models they are complex enough to keep you happily exploring for many hours. It takes about 50 hours, so I’m told, to complete the base game — if you take it seriously and are good at it. I expect to spend at least 100 hours just exploring, without any gameplay.

This is far and away the most graphically sophisticated and lovingly crafted sim world I have ever encountered. It might not be the largest map in captivity (Euro Truck Simulator 2 surely leads the pack when you add ProMods and RusMap, with over 100K game-km of mapped roads). But unlike ETS2 and many other “open world” driving games, ACO-DT is truly open! It is not a web of obligatory corridors with backdrops, cutplanes, invisible barriers and other tricks to make a cramped, sparse tabletop model feel larger and prevent you from straying outside the modeled areas. You are not limited to the road. Your avatar can walk, run, ride, sail, climb, or swim just about anywhere, wandering at will. There is no “backstage” — it’s all world.

Everything you can see, you can walk up to, around, and often into and on top of. Most buildings have explorable interiors. Stairways and roads always lead somewhere. Even the most out-of-the-way corners are finished, decorated, and viewable from any angle. The terrain, the architecture, the vegetation, the set dressing — all are modeled with loving, obsessive attention to detail. Water, smoke, and light/shadow effects are the best I’ve ever seen. Surface textures are scrupulously correct, and they stand up well to close examination (more on this later). There are so many little touches that testify to the passionate craft and pride that the huge Ubi team brought to this project.

So you’re stepping into a kind of museum diorama; but it’s huge, and it feels alive. This makes it more beautiful and more convincing than any diorama or museum exhibit could ever be. It’s more like a historical re-enactment park, but on an otherworldly scale.

This alive-ness is possibly Ubisoft’s greatest achievement. I have never seen so many NPCs (Non-Player Characters, for those who are not into gaming) in the scene. Tens of moving, interacting NPCs may be visible at any one time. They are clearly modeled on live actors via some kind of mocap; their body language is naturalistic, fluid, and convincing. The NPC models are highly detailed: I’ve looked at some of them quite closely, and their eyeballs moved! So the city and the countryside are appropriately populated with active local characters. You do see Repeat People of course (even Ubi can’t afford to model ten thousand or more unique characters), but on the whole the illusion of an inhabited, living landscape is superb.

But it gets better. This landscape is not inhabited only by people. Flocks of flamingos lift as you approach; ibises stalk, hippos wallow, crocodiles lurk, lions gallop playfully across your path. Egyptian big-horned cattle, sacred cats, eagles, oxen, donkeys, dogs, farm animals, rats — they’re all over the place. And their behaviour is also naturalistic.

This world is not static. Vegetation moves in the wind, water ripples (or even waves), trees rustle, dust blows, flames flicker. Fabric in particular is very well modelled, from gauzy banners to NPC costumes. Smoke curls and billows correctly (the proprietary AnvilNext engine must have a very good particle system).

When your avatar wades in the water, its legs get wet; the wetness corresponds nicely to the depth to which you waded. And it dries out in patches, just like IRL (In Real Life). When you shove your way through underbrush, you hear the crackle and rustle. When you wade through shallow water, you see and hear the sploshing and ripples. Your footfalls sound differently on different surfaces (what film crews call “good Foley”). The illusion is so well sustained that I expected to see my own footprints on the beach sand.

It’s worth repeating what meticulous attention has been paid to surface textures (often an illusion-breaker in 3D gaming). Marble gleams like marble. Water shimmers, refracts, reflects. Gilding shines, paint colours glow. When you gaze up at the polished marble colonnade of a temple, it looks like the real thing. You can get quite close to objects (the true test of a model) and they still look real. I got quite close to a mosaic floor, for example, and could see the shine on individual tesserae contrasting with the matte grout. (The golden “transporter beam” nearby is an historical tour station.) There must be some repeats in the tessera pattern, but they don’t jump out at you: this is another sign of obsessive attention to detail.

— — — —

Enough technical rah-rah; what’s it actually like to play? Why is this fun?

You find yourself initially on a dusty road, facing the Western Gate of Alexandria. Near you is a glowing column of air representing the start point of a history tour.

There are seventy-five of these tours; each one will present you with a designated path to follow, passing through N stations (as few as 3 or as many as 22, in my experience so far). Each tour has a topic or theme. At each station, earnest and humourless narrators will explain — at about ninth-grade level — a chapter of history or a facet of Alexandrian culture, in small doses. It is exactly like the kind of IRL culture tour in which our guide says, “If we could all just pause here a moment, this statue has a very interesting history…”

Tour stations often include additional visual aids, such as still-images of genuine Egyptian artifacts on which the sim was based, or artists’ renditions of historical scenes. The narrators occasionally do a little “making of” rap as well; they explain why Ubisoft meddled with history a bit here and there (allowing little girls to go to school, for example, which didn’t happen back then). Or they may confess that they had to model the Great Library on a surviving building elsewhere, because no records of its original appearance survive. Or that gladiatorial combat hadn’t really caught on yet at this time period, but they included an anachronistic arena for the sake of the game storyline.

But you could just ignore all that museum and making-of stuff, and start wandering around at random. You can always leave your tour partway through — because you get curious about some fascinating side alley or open doorway into an interesting building — then come back to it later after you’ve explored the neighbourhood. Your progress is saved and remembered.

Your avatar — tireless and Olympic-fit — can climb like a monkey, so you can always swarm up a building or cliff; you might just enjoy a great view or gain access to some hidden area. If you get tired of walking and climbing, you can swim across a lake or canal; or you can whistle for your trusty camel, who will carry you at a faster pace. If you see an unattended horse, you can jump on it and travel even faster than a camel-gallop. You can also commandeer small craft and go “sailing” along the gorgeous coastline. Or you can climb onto a big ship and hitch a ride wherever it happens to be going.

If all these modes of transport bore you, you can fly in the form of an eagle and get an aerial perspective on your surroundings. And no matter what you are doing, you can always switch into Camera mode and compose a nice travel picture as a keepsake. For those dark and mysterious subterranean chambers, you are of course equipped with a handy torch (the flaming kind, not battery operated).

If you get lost or disoriented, the map is only a keystroke away; and it is one heckuva map! The first time I zoomed out and realised the scale of this world, my jaw dropped. The map is useful for more than basic navigation. You can mark points of interest and then navigate towards them on “autopilot” by horse or camel, if you get tired of actively steering. The map also shows you all the available museum tours, and you can teleport instantly to any that interest you. Certain designated historical sites can also be teleport destinations. Completed tours are distinctively marked, so you’ll know which ones you haven’t done yet.

The scale-model Alexandria — the starting point — is one of the most complex (and prettiest) architectural/terrain models I’ve ever walked around in. It does evoke the feeling of an ancient city: a warren of alleyways, a maze of bazaars and temples, with magnificent monumental architecture looming over the masses. Artisans and merchants ply their trades all around you, and you can learn a lot about historical Egyptian manufacturing and trading just by observing. The streets are busy with pedestrian and equestrian traffic. You overhear conversations and music, as well as the sounds of work and travel. Most buildings are open to you, from commoners’ humble apartments to great palaces. You can witness religious rites, visit the guarded watchtowers, or wander through a winery or olive oil processing shed. Stroll the docks, or explore the island of Pharos with its famous Light.

Visiting the re-created Library of Alexandria gave me a real thrill; in its day it was the greatest library on earth, but its half-million scrolls were tragically lost to fire and neglect. If I had to pick just one place in the ancient world that I’d want to visit, that would probably be the one. Now I have seen it in its glory days — or as close as I’ll ever get, as close as Ubisoft’s team of experts could forensically reconstruct it. I would have been permanently grateful to Ubi for that experience alone… but holy cow, there’s so much more. Alexandria is just the beginning.

There’s the Delta, Cyrene, Memphis, the Necropolis… and more. Wander, learn, explore, sight-see. Rinse, repeat. No hurry, no enemies, no violence. No need to manage food, water, sleep, inventory. Nothing jumps out and says Boo (though some riders may curse or growl if you get in the way of their horses).

In certain places your avatar can even join in the local action (sit and read a scroll in the Library, scrub a floor, participate in a religious rite, dig a hole, etc). Meanwhile… game-time is elapsing, the sun is rising and setting, the moon is bright in the clear warm nights (I highly recommend night-sailing off the harbour entrance: serious eye candy!) and the light and shadow show never ends. The combination of torchlight and moonlight in parts of the city is remarkably beautiful. It’s worth walking the “main drag” at night just for the lighting.

— — -

If you’re an ancient history buff, if you’re an armchair traveller, if you just love exploring interesting places, if you appreciate 3D modelling as a contemporary art form, I think you should check this new title out.

I said earlier that I don’t play RPGs. Let me expand on that a moment. For me, the campaign and quest requirement of most big open-world RPGs spoils the experience. I have no interest in becoming king, building an Empire, or amassing gold coins; the level-up grind is just plain tedious; inventory management is a boring job that people have to be paid for IRL; and I find the relentless violence somewhere between boring and offensive. (Besides, I’m too old to enjoy battle sims that require split-second teenage reflexes or complex button-mashing.) Everyone has their thing, and RPG is not mine.

But oh boy, do I ever love to explore, to poke around in stables and workshops, farms and temples and ordinary people’s houses; to watch skilled tradespeople at work; to observe wildlife; to climb mountains for the view from the top; to photograph stunning scenery… I love orienteering and map reading, and I love being surrounded by the music of languages completely foreign to me. Discovery Tour suggests to me that at least one game company has (finally!) realised the potential of virtual tourism. And I’ve (finally) met the game I’ve been looking for all my (gaming) life.

I see ACO-DT as the beginning of a revolution in the gaming industry — a turn towards what we might call instead the “world-building industry”. Ubisoft has done something not just brilliant, but radical. They’ve created an RPG whose beauty, complexity, and scope make the built world at least of equal value to the game mechanics (for me, obviously, of more value).

The brilliant part: they’ve taken a hugely successful game franchise and expanded its potential market enormously by opening it up to non-gamers — “civilians” or “tourists”. I hope that other developers are taking note. Someday I hope to buy the “tourist version” of The Witcher, Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption, etc. I sure wouldn’t buy any of them today, even with console cheats and god-mode and so on. Even if you’re immune to damage, it’s still bloody annoying to have people chasing you, shooting at you, jumping out at you. It spoils the tourist experience :-)

I suspect that there are hundreds of millions of people out there who haven’t the least interest in meticulous resource management or waving swords and collecting potions, much less in laboured storylines about saving the world or wreaking vengeance… yet would love to visit exotic places, maybe see a little magic, encounter wild animals, walk on tropical beaches, explore ancient ruins, fly like an eagle, ride a horse, see the world. Everyone loves to travel; everyone loves to escape, for a little while, from the ordinary and the everyday. Everyone wants to see what’s round the next corner, or over the hills and far away. It’s a human thing. Once we were gatherer-hunters and we wandered for our living. It’s in our bones.

Hence the radical part: knowingly or not, Ubisoft has just pioneered Virtual Tourism. They’ve shown what is possible. They’ve made a world so convincing that it can feed that human hunger for wandering and change of scene.

Imagine the possibilities! What if you could tour the Louvre — every last hallway and corridor, even the private archives, every painting, every sketch and sculpture, fully annotated? What if you could explore the Taj Mahal, Chartres, Angkor Wat? With no crowds, no hurry, no standing in line, no time limit, no off-limits areas, no guilt-inducing air travel? How about exploring Carlsbad Caverns or the salt mines of Austria? The cliff dwellings of the Anasazi? Where have you always wanted to go? The odds are that it’s been measured and photographed enough by now that it could be accurately modeled.

And we can travel virtually not only in space, but in time. What if you could visit Renaissance Italy, Moghul India, Tokugawa Japan, or Nero’s Rome? Dahomey in its golden age? Or how about Tsarist Russia, the Kremlin, the Winter Palace? Or New York in the roaring 20's? Or aboriginal America or Polynesia, pre-contact? The Pleistocene, anyone? We have the source documents. We have the expertise. All it takes is money and time. (It took Ubi four years to produce Origins. But it sold 1.5M copies on initial release. They made money on it.)

So this is my modest proposal for solving the Problem of Tourism… what if we put some serious time and money into modeling the real world and promoting Virtual Tourism? There is encouraging precedent. Euro Truck Simulator 2 and its sister sim, American Truck Simulator, model in 3D the road networks and freightways — as well as typical architecture, terrain, and traffic — of real countries in today’s world. They are popular and long-lived titles, with a very active user community steadily contributing models and map extensions. [I personally have over 700 hours into Euro Truck, partly because I built a bicycle-based game controller so I could do virtual bike touring (rather than truck driving) using the game’s 3D world. Cycling Iceland and Western Russia is some of the best fun I’ve ever had with a computer.]

What if the world’s over-burdened tourist destinations invested heavily in mapping and modelling their local charms— talk about creating some jobs! — and created deep, detailed 3D world maps providing guided or non-guided exploration of their “tourist meccas”? What if you could purchase, say, the “Virtual Paris” map, or the “Forbidden City Model”, and at your leisure in full 3D explore some of the world’s most beautiful and iconic places? (Wouldn’t it be fun to climb the Eiffel Tower? Without getting arrested?)

I would spend some money on that. Wouldn’t you?

I fell in love with ACO-DT in the first hour. A subsequent 15 or more hours of play time have only confirmed my first impression: this is magic. I’m seriously hooked. I expect to spend weeks — months — of evenings exploring the enormous map at a leisurely pace, doing the history lessons along the way; and when I’ve finally traveled every last road and poked around every last ruin and village and pyramid and town and country estate and Roman fort… then I can go back and revisit my favourite places, having along the way learned some geography and history.

And if boredom finally sets in, I can buy the other ACO-DT (Odyssey) — which models ancient Greece and Rome in similar detail, with an even larger map!

If I could obtain a similar model of, say, the British Museum, or the Great Wall or the Winter Palace or the Hawai’ian islands or — heck, why not think big? —Lucknow or Bombay… I’d be reaching in my pocket. Way cheaper than a plane ticket, guilt-free, and you can spend all the time you want.

No, it’s not reality. No smells, no tastes, no sizzling or freezing temperatures. No fleas, no travellers’ tummy, no customs hassles — but also no unscripted encounters with real, quirky, interesting foreign people. No local food. It’s not the real thing. It’s Tofurky, not roast turkey. I admit that.

But what we are doing to the iconic destinations of the world with this onslaught of tourism is steadily eroding their reality: we’re turning them into McTravel McDestinations. With the tourists come the chain stores and the fast-food joints, the reduction of all places to one transnational “standard” of corporate hotels and airports. With the tourists comes the commodification, the “disney-fication” of living cities which reduces the quality of life for the actual residents. With the tourists comes an inflation of real estate values and an explosion of AirBnB, making housing unaffordable for locals. With the tourists comes the inexorable conversion of local tradition and folkways into saleable product, a performance put on for the punters.

And with the tourists come the carbon emissions: acid raid eating at the limestone of classic architecture, rising sea levels threatening the quaint little coastal villages, wildfires devouring the cute koalas, rising temperatures eroding the glaciers and icebergs… destroying the very features that the tourists came to admire. There are specific instances in which tourism has beneficial side effects (when wildlife, for example, is “worth more” as a tourist attraction than as meat or hides); and a carefully calculated dose of tourism can benefit a local economy. But on the whole, the effect of over-tourism has been to devalue the experience of travel and inflict increasing cultural and social costs on the host countries and cities, while adding a huge unnecessary pile of carbon to what we’re already emitting with “necessary” industrial activity.

I see VT as one potential, partial mitigation of the mess we’re in, in the same way that “meat substitute” products are one potential, partial mitigation of the huge external costs of factory meat farming (still gotta deal with the problem of soya and palm oil plantations). I see VT as a way that we might, possibly, create jobs, increase global understanding and cultural literacy, preserve traditions and local histories, and yet cut down on carbon emissions. As a way that we might give up our air travel habit (which we will eventually have to do, one way or another) without giving up entirely the thrill of visiting “far away places with strange sounding names.”

Last night I went to Ancient Egypt. Not really… but it sure was fun.

Related articles:

Guardian article 2017: “how Ubisoft painstakingly recreated Ancient Egypt”

VICE article 2019: “the walking sim is a new genre and no one fully understands it”

VICE article 2017: “does Assassin’s Creed need murder to be fun?”

Retired; ex-software engineer. Paleo-feminist. Sailor. Arduino tinkerer. Enviro. Libertarian Socialist (Anarcho-Syndicalist, kinda). Writer. Altermondialiste.

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